Commentary

"OOOH, IT'S A PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN, HONEY - COVER THE KIDS' EARS!"

by Philip Lentz

Leo Durocher was right. Nice guys finish last.

As the presidential primary season comes down to the finish line - March 7 in New York and in 15 other states around the country - it is clear that the candidates willing to break a few kneecaps are the ones who will be standing in the end.

Al Gore and George W. Bush, both coddled sons of political dynasties, got out the brass knuckles when their candidacies were threatened and revived their presidential hopes.

Bill Bradley ducked when attacked and now struggles to stay alive politically. John McCain initially ducked too and got pummeled in South Carolina. So he came out swinging, won Michigan, keeping his candidacy afloat.

The lesson? He who takes the political high road usually ends up on the political sideline. It's a harsh political reality as the presidential campaign touches down this week in New York.

On the Democratic side, New York looks like Bradley's last stand. His belated decision to go after Gore - so dramatically staged at last week's Harlem debate - may galvanize his supporters. But it appears to have come too late to stall Gore's march to the Democratic nomination. New York may be the closest thing outside New Jersey to Bradley's home stomping ground - given his credentials as a former Knick - but New York now appears to be solid Gore country.

For Republicans, McCain's surprising surge has given a sense of doubt and foreboding to Bush supporters. But the Texas governor is stronger in New York than recent poll numbers suggest. Republican primary voters tend to do as they are told, and Governor Pataki and his boys don't want to be embarrassed. More importantly, independents and Democrats can't vote in Republican primaries in New York. Those groups have been the driving force behind McCain's insurgent candidacy and they won't be of any help here.

The most troubling aspect of this presidential campaign is how often being nasty works. First Gore, then Bush, and now finally McCain have discovered the low road to success. That means the next president, like his two most recent predecessors, will have been elected in a campaign that rewarded the meanest route to the White House.

There is an odd disconnect here. At the beginning of each campaign, commentators and do-gooders plead for a debate on the "issues." Polls are taken that show the public detests negative campaigning. Editorial writers denounce campaigns that put down, rather than lift up.

Then the campaigns heat up and what happens? The candidates who go negative pull ahead. For all the hand-wringing, the bottom line is that negative campaigning works.

Look what happened the last time a presidential candidate said he was going to stick to the high road. That was in 1992. I had a bird's eye view. The candidate was Paul Tsongas and I was his press secretary, and I saw how he agonized over how to respond to negative attacks.

When frontrunner Bill Clinton stumbled in early 1992 over Gennifer Flowers and the draft, Tsongas found himself the unexpected early frontrunner. He won New Hampshire and was riding political momentum, much as John McCain was several weeks ago.

And Clinton, much like Gore and Bush have done in 2000, fought back by going negative, forcing Tsongas with the now-familiar dilemma: Respond by attacking Clinton and be pushed "off message;" or don't respond, look weak and watch your poll numbers drop.

In the end, Tsongas did both, and did neither well. He ran negative TV ads against Clinton, while trying to stay positive on the stump. When he finally broke down and attacked Clinton before the Florida primary - calling him a "pander bear" - he looked desperate. His campaign collapsed several weeks later.

Bill Bradley and John McCain have each faced similar dilemmas. Respond and you're are pushed off your agenda. Don't respond, your numbers fall.

Bradley initially equivocated when Gore mounted an assault several months ago. Many of Gore's charges were unfair and plainly false, such as the charge that Bradley's health care proposal would ruin Medicaid. But Bradley was reluctant to hit back. Didn't want to be pushed off message. By the time Bradley realized he had to respond, it was too late. He lost big in Iowa and his large lead in New Hampshire evaporated. It's been downhill ever since.

McCain, put in a similar bind by Bush's harsh attacks in South Carolina, tried to fight back in kind. But he went overboard in linking Bush to Clinton and had to pull his negative ads and stick to a positive campaign. It cost him the primary and forced him to go negative again in Michigan. This time, he used the stump, not the tube, questioning Bush's integrity while surrogates suggested the Texas governor condoned bigotry. The result: a comeback win that evened the GOP race.

Political veterans may say, as McCain did recently in a television interview, that politics ain't beanbag, and no one should not expect candidates to follow Marquess of Queensberry rules in presidential campaigns. This year's campaign reminds me of Paul Newman's famous line in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" as he was about to start a knife fight. You know the rules, Newman said. No, said his puzzled opponent. Well, Newman said, the first rule is that there are no rules, and he promptly kicked his opponent in the groin. Fight over.

This may make for great entertainment, but more is at stake in a presidential campaign. How a candidate campaigns presages how he will govern. Is it any accident, then, that sound bites, polls and TV ads now dominate our national debates? To win political fights, presidents turn to the tactics they know best - the tactics of campaigns. Discredit your opponent and you win. Ironically, one of the best examples of this strategy resulted in Bill Clinton's biggest defeat as president. The insurance lobby in 1994 used negative ads to defeat his ambitious health reform plan.

The sad truth is that until we as voters start registering our displeasure with negative campaigning at the polls, politicians will continue to take us for suckers and feed us attack ads to win the next prize.

Philip Lentz is the political reporter for Crain's New York Business.

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